Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not plugged in

Italy is a developed country, right? So you'd think that something as simple as plugging something into an electrical outlet would be straightforward. Well, you'd have thought wrong. That’s because in addition to the power in most apartments being limited to 3 kW (which is apparently low enough that you can’t iron when you’re running the washing machine, though you can choose to pay for more power), there are three different systems of electrical plugs and outlets, each one incompatible with the others. I ran into this problem yesterday, when I bought a microwave and wanted to plug it in. It turned out that the microwave had a Schuko plug (bottom left), which doesn’t fit into the socket in the kitchen (top left). Also, I bought a power strip at Ikea so that I could plug in both my laptop and external hard drive at the same time (that’s another thing – there are never enough sockets in Italian apartments), but it had a 16 A three-prong plug (bottom center), which has a different prong spacing and thickness than the 10 A outlet (top right) that is in place where I have my computer stuff.

So today, I went to a hardware store to stock up on adapters. In addition to several Schuko to 16 A adapters, I also got a 3-to-1 10 A adapter, so that I can plug in my computer stuff. The result, including the plug adapters that convert from US plugs to European standard plugs, is pictured bottom right. Somehow I get the feeling that even though all these systems were designed to be incompatible for safety reasons, all of these adapters and multisockets end up making it all the more dangerous.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Good rebuttal to a pretty snobbish article on being an expatriate in Europe.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Moving Day

Today was finally moving day. I went to the realtor's office at 10, where I signed the official contract, met my landlord, and got rid of ridiculous amounts of money (2 month's rent as deposit, plus 1 month's rent as payment for the realtor, plus registration taxes). The realtor did the best she could with her limited English in communicating things between the landlord (basically no English) and myself (basically no Italian). Then the landlord took me to the apartment, along with his son, who spoke some English, and showed me the utilities, and how everything in the apartment works.
I don't know if I've mentioned it, but most apartments for rent are furnished here. Getting an unfurnished apartment means truly getting something unfurnished -- no kitchen, and perhaps not even toilets! -- so you're not only looking for a nice apartment in a good location, but also judging the furniture. Luckily, the apartment I found has almost completely new furnishings and appliances. It's also in a decent style (ok, I probably wouldn't have gotten a bright red sofa-bed, but you know...). After being driven back to the center, I briefly went to the Mercato Centrale to pick up some fruit and lunch stuff for this week, then I just went to my old apartment and picked up the first bag to take to the new place.
I managed to do three runs back and forth today, each time taking one bag or suitcase with me, which took care of most of the stuff I already have with me here. In between, I went to Esselunga, a large grocery store, and Lidl, a German discount grocery chain. I was pretty glad to see that there was a Lidl nearby the apartment, since that will definitely help keep grocery costs down (EUR 1.38 for a liter of milk at Esselunga vs. EUR 0.70 at Lidl). Before the last run, I stayed at the old apartment for a while to use the internet, since I don't have that set up yet in the new place. From what I've heard, it can take anywhere from one to three months to get the telephone installed and DSL set up, so I'll get that process started as soon as possible. In the meantime, I guess I'll have to rely on the internet at work, and on reading material in the evenings and on weekends.
Finally, I made myself some pasta and homemade tomato sauce, with some Italian red wine (one of the few things that's cheap). Whew... now I'm tired!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Quick trip home

When I bought my flight from Germany to Italy, I ended up buying a roundtrip flight, since that was considerably cheaper than a one-way flight. I thought I'd just not use the return flight, but I booked it for a Thursday anyway. It turned out that the Friday after the return is actually a public holiday in Italy (Liberation Day), so I decided to actually use the flight, visit my parents and pick up some more stuff to take with me. The flight itself was pretty uneventful, and I spent a few days eating well, visiting my dad's brother and family, and seeing what herb pots my parents had bought for our balcony in the new apartment in Florence. On the way back to Italy on Sunday, I took the train, which took a little over 11 hours (the plane takes a little over one!). The train ride wasn't too boring, though, since the route took me straight across Switzerland, so I got to see plenty of green pastures with cows and sheep, beautiful snow-covered mountains in the Alps, and some very pretty scenery at the lakes near the Italian border.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Contacts & Contracts

This evening, I got together with Chris and Erin, two Americans who've been living in Florence for several months, and whose blog I ran across. We met for coffee after dinner and they gave me some useful tips about internet connections, bank accounts, and fake meat products for Kristen. It was definitely nice to talk to other people who were also strangers in a foreign country and had to go through some of the same difficulties (language, getting settled, etc.) as I am.


I'm finally getting somewhat settled at work now. In contrast to the efficient systems in Germany and the US, where you were cared for and introduced to everyone the first day you arrived, here it seems to be somewhat more disorganized. Last week, I finally got a desk of my own, although it's still temporary, since it's in the graduate student room. Before that I was sitting in my advisor's office at another person's desk. Today I applied for an email account, and got a copy and printing code (which doesn't work yet). And I also got word that my temporary work contract is being prepared.
About that: I was supposed to start officially working on April 1st, with the one-year contract starting that date. However, they emailed me the contract while we were in Argentina, and wanted it sent back signed shortly thereafter, before we returned to the US. So I told them that I couldn't do that since I was out of the country, and they agreed to have the official contract start in May, and to have some sort of a temporary contract for April. Well, apparently the temporary contract is in the works and I have hopes of getting paid at some point, and the official contract, for which we (might) start the paperwork next week will start middle of May.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Music I've been listening to

Since I haven't brought over my CD collection yet (and will probably have to leave it with my parents in Germany for space reasons), I've been making use of iTunes and my digitized collection. These are some of my recent favorites:
  • The New Pornographers: The Bleeding Heart Show
    I bought this song on iTunes this weekend after reading a review of a show of theirs online. This is one of those songs I keep hitting 'repeat' for. It starts out slow, builds, and is just perfect when Neko Case takes over the vocals.
  • Forro in the Dark: Asa Branca (doesn't work in Italy, unfortunately) introduced me to this song a little over a year ago, and I bought the whole album shortly thereafter. Forro is a northern Brazilian type of music that's been described as a mixture of reggae and polka. Forro in the Dark have updated the sound, replacing the traditional accordion with a flute, and getting some help from David Byrne on this track.
  • Bajofondo Tango Club: Pa' bailar
    This is what Nuevo Tango should sound like: not just a copy of traditional tangos with a techno beat, but a blend of the two styles, and most certainly very danceable.
  • The Shins: Turn on Me
    I got this track for free when it was on Pitchfork's top songs of the year 2007, and got addicted.
  • Damien Jurado: Ohio
    Sounds like Dylan. What more can you say?

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Today was another beautiful spring day -- warm, not hot, and sunny. I decided to take the bus up to Fiesole (pronounce: fee-EH-so-leh), a small town on the hills outside of Florence. That seems to be a pretty popular thing to do, and the bus was full of tourists. I think the bus authority wanted to take advantage of unknowing tourists, and this was the first time since I arrived that someone checked the tickets (and that they were validated!). Anyway, the bus made its way through the city and then up some windy roads and past some pretty impressive villas until it arrived in the main square of Fiesole about half an hour later. The town dates back to the Etruscans, and hosted a Roman settlement as well, of which an amphitheater and some other ruins can still be seen. I didn't actually visit these, since they cost admission and I'm waiting for Kristen to get here to visit places that charge money, though I did manage to see some of the ruins through a fence. I walked around a bit and then walked up a steep hill to a 14th century church and monastery, from where there's a spectacular view down to Florence in the valley. I've read that it's a bit cooler up here in the summer, and I can imagine that this place would be ideal for a picnic then.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

An offal day

After more than a week and a half of rain every day, today the sun came out again, and temperatures were up in the upper 60's. Before walking around though, I went to the Mercato Centrale again, to pick up some fruit and prosciutto, and also to have lunch. Now when most people think of Italian food, they think of pizza and pasta. While those are certainly popular here, they're not necessarily Tuscan or Florentine specialties. No, Tuscans seem to prefer fresh vegetables and legumes, and all kinds of meat. In fact, the most well-known specialty of Florence is 'bistecca fiorentina', a gigantic (ca. 16-20 oz.) T-bone steak lightly seasoned and grilled to perfection. But that's expensive, and so for fast food, Florentines resort to tripe. And so I went to 'Da Nerbone', one of the food stalls in the Mercato, for a Lampredotto sandwich. Lampredotto, by the way, is the fourth stomach of the cow, cooked for a long time in a tomato-based broth, served on a bun with some salsa verde. I must say, it was pretty good and very flavorful. I'll have to go back sometime and try the 'trippa alla fiorentina', boiled tripe in a tomato broth.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Buddha at Palazzo Strozzi

No Country For Old Men

I finally got around to seeing "No Country for Old Men" this evening, in the one movie theater that shows English language movies three times a week. I was almost expecting to be disappointed after all the hype that's been made about it, but in the end, it was probably one of the best movies of the year. It was definitely one of the most tense movies of the year. So maybe some of the plot points didn't quite make sense, but I'm still digesting and maybe they will after a while. If you haven't seen the movie, I recommend you check it out.


In other news, it appears as if Italy is actually a country for old men, since they just elected 71-year old Silvio Berlusconi to his 3rd time in office as prime minister. This being a man who owns much of the media, has been on trial several times and during the campaign called for prosecutors to take sanity tests every few years. I haven't followed Italian politics too much, so I'm not sure why a seemingly sane people would elect this man again. Then again...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Gypsy Punks

Last night, Gogol Bordello played in Florence (actually, James Taylor was as well, but I'm not sure there's too much overlap there...). Since the venue was a little outside the city, I was hesitant at first, but the bus schedule said there were buses until 12:30, so that seemed fine. The concert was pretty wild, and the band is f***ing nuts, but they put on an excellent show, including two background dancers/singers/screamers. Highlights were I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again, Start Wearing Purple, and Harem in Tuscany.
And the bus ran on the way back.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Market day

Saturday, finally weekend, and I've got some time to do some shopping and at the same time explore some of the most interesting places in Florence - the market halls. It's very convenient, since the Mercato Centrale is just 50 yards away from the apartment in which I'm currently in. This is apparently the largest covered market in Europe, dating back to 1874, and it houses rows upon rows of butcher, fishmongers, bakeries, cheese shops, lunch counters, and other stands with Tuscan specialties. Upstairs is a huge section with fresh produce. Of course some of the stands are geared towards tourists with their fancy oils and wines, but most of the market is where Florentines come to shop. It all sort of reminds me of the markets in South America that I've seen (as do many other things in Italy). Since I'm a bit restricted in terms of cooking in the shared kitchen (my diet at the moment consists mostly of pasta and rice dishes), I wasn't able to get too much, though I got some produce to snack on, some cold cuts and cheese for sandwiches, and some fresh pasta, which was actually reasonably priced.
Afterwards, I headed off for another market, the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio, on the other side of town. This one was smaller, with the produce stands outside the market building, but similar in character. Once I've got a real kitchen, I'll definitely have to try out all the great food. On the market square was La Via del Tè, a tea shop that I had found on the internet. It's a bit upscale, with corresponding prices, but they do have a large selection, and a few tables where you can enjoy the prepared goodness. It's good to know that I have a place to come back to should I need an emergency ration of tea.

A reverse Marshall Plan?

In one of the many free newspapers that I was handed at the bus stop yesterday, I saw an article which announced a promotion for American tourists: at selected locations, restaurants and hotels, as well as museums and theaters will be offering 10-20% discount for Americans. Apparently the dollar is so weak that they'd rather have Americans come here and pay less than not come at all. You can try to decipher the article here, or just have Babelfish give you a translation. I'm not sure how they'll check that you're actually American - maybe you have to show your passport when you get the bill in the restaurant or something.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Apartment

Well, I got the apartment. I went to the real estate office this morning to rent the one I looked at on Friday that I liked. So I signed the contract, or rather the formal offer, which the owner now has to accept. If all goes well, I can get the keys end of April and pay large amounts of money in deposit, agent fees, and registration taxes. But hey, I've got an apartment in a good location, with nice new furnishings, in Florence. Even though it's not huge, it has a sofa bed, so we can host short-term guests.
This afternoon, I finally got an introduction to the lab, and a description of what they're doing at the moment and planning to do soon. It sounds interesting, and I'll sit in some more tomorrow to get an idea of how things work in there. Since this experiment is both older (and flakier) and more complex than the one I worked on in Charlottesville, that will probably take some time.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

City of stairs and escalators

Since we still had the car today, we decided to go to Perugia, where my parents had not yet been, and which is a little less than two hours away in Umbria. This time we took the "autostrada," which was not quite as scenic as the little country roads, but a lot faster. In Perugia, we found a parking spot (free on weekends!) and made our way to the city center. Since Perugia is another one of those cities on a hill, it was quite a climb up to the center, though luckily the city has installed a set of strategically placed escalators that make the trip a lot easier. Some of them even go through very old buildings!
Perugia itself was quite scenic, dating back to Etruscan times a few centuries B.C. We didn't go into any of the sights you had to pay for, but we did see the inside of the cathedral, which was being renovated, and the hall of notaries, which was elaborately decorated with medieval wall paintings. What I liked most was the Church of Sant' Angelo, which was at one end of the city, and dates back to the 6th century. It's simplicity and tranquility stood out for me. We ate at a place recommended by the Lonely Planet, where there was no menu, and you got crostini, two types of pasta, roasted meat and salad, a dessert and a shot of "vin santo" for 13 Euros per person. Yes, you need a coffee to get you out of your chair after a meal like that!
On the way back, we stopped in Lucignano, one of those Tuscan towns from postcards, where no tourists seem to have made it to, even though it's only 10 minutes from the highway. The streets wind around a hill in concentric ovals, and this town of 3500 people has no less than 7 churches. This would definitely be a nice place to stay and relax for a night or two.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

San Gimignano and the Chianti

Today my parents rented a car, so we would be able to explore some of the surrounding area. One place they had been and really liked was San Gimignano, which is also not so easy to get to by train or public bus, so that's where we went. On the way there, we stopped in Barberino Val d'Elsa, where we got some bread and prosciutto for a picnic, and then headed off to San Gimignano. After a picnic among olive trees, we were ready to explore the town. Back in the day, the rich families here tried to outdo each other by building higher and higher towers on their houses. Even though many of them have since collapsed, the town still earns its nickname of "Manhattan of Tuscany." On the central piazza, we enjoyed some of the gelato of a famous gelateria where many celebrities have apparently eaten, and which some call the best gelato of Italy. I think I'll have to sample many more before I can make that judgement, but it was pretty good.
On the way back, we stopped in Colle di Val d'Elsa, which is another one of those Tuscan hill towns, and then at a winery in the Chianti, where my parents bought some olive oil. There are definitely enough places to buy wine and oil around here. Finally, we drove back to Florence through the Chianti, stopping in Greve in Chianti, where we picked up some salami at a gigantic butcher store. On the drive, we saw a picture perfect sunset over the rolling hills.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Could this be it?

Since I submitted the Marie Curie application yesterday, and my adviser was off to a conference with most of the lab, I stayed at home today, and went searching for an apartment. My parents had talked to various real estate agents yesterday, and had already looked at an apartment in the center for 850 Euros, which had a large living room and bedroom, but a tiny kitchen and a broken beam in the bedroom, which had to be supported. The problem with apartments in Florence is that there's no market. If you have an apartment to rent, you're more likely to rent it to tourists, where you'll get much more money by the week than if you were to rent it by the month. Also, most Italians seem to buy rather than rent (or live at home until they have a high-paying job). So finding an apartment is not the easiest thing to do.
My parents had also gone to an "immigrant services center," where a friendly Indian man told them about some apartments. This morning, we went there together and he took us to another real estate agency, which had two apartments that looked alright. We were only able to visit one this afternoon, though, which was a 1 bedroom apartment with large kitchen, and cost 900 Euros/month, all utilities included. However, it was on a main street and very loud, and the furnishings were somewhat old and used. That's the other thing -- an unfurnished apartment is just that, and has no kitchen or appliances in it (apparently, sometimes not even toilets). So a furnished apartment is the way to go for us.
Afterwards, we headed out towards Novoli/Baracca, where we were supposed to look at another apartment from another agency in the evening, and where there was a real estate agency that had various offers on the web that looked interesting. Even though the woman there was helpful and spoke English, she was only able to tell us about one of the apartments (the others were too small or already rented), and would only be able to show us that next week. Apparently realtors don't work weekends. We walked around a little afterwards and went to Lidl (a German discount grocery chain) to pick up some more things.
The apartment we looked at in the evening was very nice. It's also a one bedroom apartment with kitchen/living room, with a large balcony and new furniture and appliances. I'm thinking this might be it. Of course, it's not as big as what we had in Charlottesville, nor does it have a dryer or a dishwasher, but hey -- you're in Florence (or rather, a 20 minute bus ride from the center). It also had a sofa-bed in the living room, which would be good for the visitors we expect to have.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


My parents have been here since Tuesday evening, both to help me find an apartment, and to celebrate my birthday with me. Today was also the deadline for the Marie Curie fellowship application, which I submitted about an hour and a half before it was due. Good thing that's out of the way.
So tonight we went out to dinner at a somewhat better restaurant, Olio e Convivium, where I had some foie gras and bean tortellini, and lamb shanks with green beans (which also had foie gras on them). It was pretty good, though I must say I'm not a big fan of foie gras. The wine we had -- a Brunello di Montalcino -- was quite excellent though.